Tens of thousands of people defied social distancing rules in Hong Kong on Thursday to mark the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, when authorities crushed mass pro-democracy protests in Beijing.
The gathering occurred just hours after pro-Beijing lawmakers in Hong Kong passed a contentious bill to make it a crime to mock China’s national anthem.
“I promised myself last year that I must come again,” said Lily Li, referring to the large-scale pro-democracy protests that erupted in Hong Kong almost a year ago.
Ms Li held a white candle in Victoria Park, where for 30 years hundreds of thousands of people have converged every June 4 to hold a candlelit vigil. Hong Kong is the only place on Chinese government-controlled territory where large-scale memorial activities can be openly held.
This year’s memorial, however, was banned by police as social distancing measures enacted to curb the coronavirus pandemic remain in force.
The crowds removed police barriers erected to prevent the gathering and chanted slogans, including “independence for Hong Kong is the only way out”.
Smaller crowds also formed in many other places across the city of 7.4m people. Organisers had called for a “candles everywhere” memorial after the police refused to grant a permit for the Victoria Park event.
Hong Kong is the only place on Chinese government-controlled territory where large-scale memorial activities can be openly held © REUTERS
The national anthem law, which is seen as the latest effort by Beijing to assert its authority over the territory, would impose a maximum three-year prison sentence on anyone convicted of insulting the March of the Volunteers.
Open displays of defiance have become common in Hong Kong when the anthem is played at sporting and other public events, especially in the wake of last year’s protests. Pro-democracy lawmakers boycotted the vote, which passed by a margin of 41-1.
Activists fear the recent decision by China’s parliament to impose a new national security law on Hong Kong, which may come into force by the end of this month, will make it illegal to hold open remembrances of Tiananmen.
“Given how broad national security is defined in China, it is quite likely the organisation of June 4 commemoration events is going to become increasingly difficult,” said Maya Wang at Human Rights Watch.
“We will insist that we have the right to light a candle inside Victoria Park,” Lee Cheuk-yan, chairman of the group that organises the annual memorial, said ahead of Thursday’s gathering. “Though China is totally dark and brainwashing its own people, in Hong Kong we still will light a candle for those who sacrificed in 1989.”
A 19-year-old student, who identified himself as Jay, said the vigil was the second he had attended. He added that the “regime” that put down the 1989 Tiananmen protests”is the same regime that is suppressing us now”.
The National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament, inserted the national anthem law into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, or Basic Law, three years ago. But it only came into effect once Hong Kong lawmakers passed their own version of the legislation.
The national security law, by contrast, will be imposed on Hong Kong by promulgation, denying the region’s Legislative Council an opportunity to modify it.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, travelled to Beijing on Wednesday for discussions with officials about the law. Speaking to reporters after her meetings, Ms Lam said some Hong Kong residents would be given a chance to air their views in seminars to be held on the mainland rather than in the city.
Formal passage of the national anthem and national security laws will further strain relations with the US. Donald Trump has threatened to revoke economic and trading privileges Hong Kong enjoys on the basis that its wide-ranging autonomy has been undermined by Beijing.
Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, on Wednesday met four former student leaders of the 1989 Beijing protests and asked how the US could “help China move towards democracy”, according to Wang Dan, a Tiananmen activist. Mr Wang has previously been barred from entering Hong Kong.